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Q&A: Author Robin DiAngelo talks White Fragility, race and privilege

KING 5 Anchor Joyce Taylor sat down with Robin DiAngelo to talk about her book, "White Fragility," and what white people can do to put an end to systemic racism.

SEATTLE — Robin DiAngelo is the author of "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People To Talk About Racism."

DiAngelo earned her PhD in multicultural education from the University of Washington in Seattle and is currently an affiliate associate professor of education at the UW. Her area of research is in "Whiteness Studies and Critical Discourse Analysis, tracing how whiteness is reproduced in everyday narratives," according to her website. 

Her book "White Fragility" is currently number one on The New York Times Best Sellers List.

KING 5 Anchor Joyce Taylor sat down with DiAngelo to talk about her book and what white people can do to help put an end to systemic racism.

WATCH: Full episodes of Facing Race

The following is a partial transcript of their conversation. Some of the questions and answers below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Joyce Taylor: What is white fragility? What does it mean to have white fragility? 

Robin DiAngelo: It’s a term that is meant to capture a fairly familiar dynamic, and at this point, familiar worldwide. That is the fairly predictable defensiveness and upset that many white people respond with whenever our racial world views are challenged. The fragility part is meant to capture how little it takes to get us upset. For many white people, just saying white people, just generalizing about white people perceiving as if our race has meaning will cause that defensiveness and that upset. But the impact of it is not fragile at all, because it marshals behind it the weight of institutional control and legal authority. And so it functions, whether intentional or not, as a very effective way to keep people from challenging our racial position…naming our race as if it matters, talking about the advantages of being white in a society in which racial inequality is the foundation.

Taylor: Why is it still so difficult for people to talk about race and privilege? 

DiAngelo: There’s not a single reason, there are a lot of reasons that come together. First and foremost is what we think it means to suggest that someone is racist. Most of us believe that a racist is an individual who consciously doesn’t like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them. I don’t know if you could have come up with a more effective way to protect the system of racism than that definition, and I think it’s the root of most white defensiveness, because it makes being a good moral person in complicity with the system that we live in mutually exclusive.

There’s a lot of defensiveness because people believe they are being called a bad person. They also believe that it must be conscious and intentional. Most of the racist harm I’ve committed across my life, I would say none of it was conscious or intentional. It harmed others nonetheless.

The ideology of individualism is very strong. That also makes it hard for white people to talk about racism because we want to be seen as unique and special and different.  We want you to proceed as if you couldn’t know anything about us unless you knew us personally. And of course we are individuals, unique and special and we’re also members of a social group that is so profound in its consequences for our lives, that you could literally predict whether our mothers and I were going to survive our birth. And so we have to be willing to grapple with the shared collective experience of living in a society, swimming in the same water, receiving the same messages 

What I would offer any white person who takes umbrage at my generalization about  white people...Is to take anything that you see as an exception to what I’m saying, and ask yourself, 'How has being white shaped how I experience what I think exempts me from the society I live in?'

Taylor: Give us one example of that?

DiAngelo: I grew up poor. I mean that very literally, no question about it. There was homelessness. In my childhood, there were periods of living in our car. There were periods of being left with strangers for long periods of time because my mother couldn't feed or clothe us. I had a very deep sense of class shame. I didn't go to college until I was in my 30s. And, I always knew I was white. I always knew it was better to be white. And being white absolutely shaped how I experienced poverty and how I left poverty.

There is just no way my experience would have been the same if I was Black and poor, and also dealing with racism. So not having to deal with racism, actually benefiting from the structures of racism have absolutely impacted again, how I experienced my class position that that for me would be an example.

Taylor: You said something that I want you to elaborate on, you said you grew up knowing that white was better.

DiAngelo: There are many ways. There are the less explicit ways, such as virtually all role models, heroes, heroines, books of being white, almost every teacher any white person has ever had – many of us go through graduate school and rarely, if ever, are taught by someone that is not of our race – God, Jesus, Mary. These images, when you read a book or a novel, race's generally only named if it is not white. It's pretty relentless. 

One of the images I show in my presentations is the two girls from "Frozen," just to make the point. The research is clear that by age three to four children who grew up here understand it's better to be white. So there's the absorption of the centrality of the white experience, white people, representing simply people, simply human, the standard by which we measure human, and people of color and Black people in particular, always a version of human, a deviation from that ideal standard. 

That's on the cultural level, personally in my life, and this connects to growing up poor. I was hungry a lot of the time. And sometimes I would be in public, I would reach for food that I saw unattended, and I would be admonished by my grandmother, my mother not to touch it. Because I didn't know who had touched, it could have been a colored person, that was the language of that time meant Black people. And that message was very clear. Had a colored person touched it, it would be dirty. The reality was that because my mother couldn't really take care of us, I was dirty. But in those moments, I wasn't poor anymore, I didn't have to experience the shame of that. In those moments, I was white. And that kind of realigned me with the dominant white culture that my poverty separated me from. That's a pretty powerful message. In some ways, I see us as having used Black people to project our shame onto.

Taylor: And to those who would argue that your book is a way of making white people feel guilty, you would say what?

DiAngelo: I would say that you have not engaged with the book, you haven't listened to me speak. I think it's very clear that I'm not interested in guilt. I actually don't have a lot of patience for guilt. 

Inwardly, I'm rolling my eyes when people claim that this makes them to feel too guilty. I do believe that is a natural response, to feel some guilt, when you come to awareness that there is a system that has been set up to accommodate you, to benefit you, to advantage you and to disadvantage others. That it wasn't your hard work alone that got you where you are, with your hard work coupled with a system that rewarded that work differently than other people's hard work. 

So yes, there may be some guilt, but you have to move beyond it, past it. Because it all too often functions to mobilize us to excuse disengagement.

I am very clear that I have benefited from structural racism. I'm very clear that I have internalized racist ideology that I've absorbed from the culture and racist biases, and that's resulted in racist behaviors and manifestations of racism in my life. And I'm also clear that I didn't choose any of that. I wasn't, you know, I didn't choose to be conditioned that way. So I don't feel guilt. 

I think it should be clear by what I just said, that I own my racist conditioning. And I like to think it's clear that I'm a pretty empowered person. What I feel is responsible. I am responsible for the outcome of having been socialized this way. And that's on me now to continually ask myself, 'How is it manifesting in my life, and how might I change that?'

Taylor: The more popular your book has become, the more vocal some of your critics. The Black conservative John McWhorter wrote in The Atlantic that your book is condescending and dehumanizes Black people, because it gives specific instructions about how white people are and are not to approach Black people. What's your response to that?

DiAngelo: I think that that is a disingenuous reading on the part of John McWhorter. I think it's very important to always ask, who is this person? What is this source? John McWhorter, in that same article, states that he has rarely ever experienced racism, and that being Black has actually been a benefit to him. I would never want to take that from him. But in my experience, especially in this moment of racial reckoning, he doesn't speak for most Black people.

I am offering some perspectives and skills that could constructively increase our cross racial interactions. I think most people would not deny at this cultural moment that our race relations in this country are very, very problematic. So I'm just trying to offer some guidance that it's not, you must or you mustn't, it's just be aware. Here's the impact of some of these things that we say and do. 

Taylor: One other criticism that I really want you to respond to is this idea that the book leaves people of color almost powerless.

DiAngelo: As a white person, I am speaking directly to white people. And I'm very clear that this book is written for white people. Of course, I hope that that is useful for Black people and other people of color who read it, it might be useful to hear an insider's perspective on whiteness.

I do believe Black people understand everything I'm writing about likely to a degree that I never will. And as an insider, I do have a perspective on it that they can't have. We need all of this at the table. White people will never understand what we need to understand about racism if we don't listen to Black people, if we don't learn from Black people. But we can't only listen to Black people, we have to raise one another's awareness. We have to be models, use examples that people can relate to. 

So of course, my objective is not to disempower or rob agency but to cause less daily exhaustion to push white people to be a little more accountable for the outcome of the ways that we tend to engage now.

Taylor: So our next show is focused on how parents should be teaching their kids about race and racism and why that's important, especially for parents of white children. Do you agree?

DiAngelo: It's a little bit like being on the airplane and they say, put your oxygen mask on before you put on your child's oxygen mask. We have to be in good shape ourselves. This is not like a conversation we have one day. So many parents who themselves cannot think critically about their own whiteness, who themselves aren't educated on this topic, don't have much emotional capacity to withstand the discomfort of these conversations. And then they're just turning to say, 'So how do I teach my children to do better at it?' As you integrate those awareness and skills into your life, it will automatically be infused in your child's life.

I proudly and comfortably identify as a feminist. I raised a daughter. It wasn't some talk we had one day, it's just the way I see the world. So when we watched a movie, we talked about what we saw. The books that I chose, I chose with that awareness. We discussed images and cultural patterns. It's so much of the way that I see the world that it's automatic, and anti-racism has to be that way for us too. But that's an ongoing process. But whenever we're engaged in an ongoing process, then that comes out in our parenting. That's where I would start is myself.

Taylor: You've already pointed to the fact that it should start when kids are very young. What is the most common question you get from parents of white children?

DiAngelo: The most common question I get is, 'How do I raise my children?' Which I always want to say, 'Do you really want to ask me how to raise your children?' That's a pretty deep question. There are conflicting narratives around race and race relations. Some parents will insist that their children are innocent of race. But I think most parents recognize pretty early on that their children have absorbed problematic racial ideas. They come home from school, and they say things, and they talk about other children in particular ways. So your child might have been born racially innocent, but they don't stay that way for very long. And when you project this innocence onto them, when you say, 'Well, I don't think they're old enough to have this conversation,' you're leaving them unattended to the messages. They have no way to resist those messages. So it's on you to figure out okay, what would be an age appropriate way to be having these conversations, but they should be going all the time. 

Dr. Jennifer Harvey has a book called Raising White Kids. There's lots of resources out there for parents.

Taylor: Why do you think it is so important for white families who have children to really be in touch with these issues around race when their kids are very young?

DiAngelo: White people control virtually all the institutions of the society. We are the ones who sit at the tables, making decisions that affect the lives every single day of people who aren't sitting at those tables.

Those white children, particularly, of course, if they're the middle and upper classes, will grow up to sit at those tables of power and decision making. So it's something you want to have infused in their consciousness all through their lives, to begin to change the culture. 

Most white people live segregated lives. We live the most segregated lives of any group and segregated from Black people in particular. So, we're left to rely on deeply problematic sources for understanding of Black people. Your children are relying on jokes, omissions, warnings and very narrow, repetitive media representations. But they're going to go forth and in large part become leaders in the world. So you can only reproduce that racist status quo if you aren't seeking to challenge it.

Taylor: Go a little bit more in depth on how our society reinforces these ideas of systemic racism and white supremacy in children.

DiAngelo: In children, you see it through media, images, dolls, toys. I would have anyone actually walk down the toy aisle at a Target. First of all, start with gender. You know exactly what aisle you're on. Look at the colors of the aisle. Look at the emotions expressed in the images on that, look at the activities. It is so stark, the depth of that gender binary that is represented in those toys, and then begin to think about race. Notice the race of the toys, notice who's missing, who isn't missing, what are their activities? You have to begin to notice all of the messages that are around you. 

Look through your children's textbooks, look through their curriculum, look what is on the walls in the school and not just. There's a poster of a whole bunch of Kranz in a box that says, 'diversity is important,' and that's on the wall and the hallway. I mean, get in, look at the curriculum.

Ask your teacher how she intends to engage with these issues. We have to put pressure that this is important. I would really dream to see a society in which if you cannot engage with some nuance and complexity in education on these issues, you aren't seen as qualified to teach children, really you aren't seen as qualified to practice law, and you aren't seen as certified as highly educated, not in 2020, if you cannot engage with these issues. So we have to put pressure that this is a necessary qualification.

Taylor: And also what is the impact of all of these images, especially on children, if adults, particularly parents, teachers do nothing?

DiAngelo: Well, we see the reproduction of the status quo, we see what we see. Now, if I was giving a presentation, I could show you all of the data and statistics on who controls the halls of power. And think about there's an image I have of 2020, White House interns, and if the group is not 100% white, it's pretty, pretty close. These are our future legislators or future leaders. And that's just one image there. We're not picking on the White House in terms, you can see that everywhere. And they will, again, play a powerful role. And then ask yourself, what neighborhoods do they likely grow up in? What teachers do they likely have? What schools do they likely go to? What were their friendship circles? If they're married, who was at their wedding?

I think the overwhelming weight of white segregation, coupled with not only no sense that anything of value has been lost to us by not knowing Black people, but then in fact, the whiter our environment, the more valuable it is -- this, for me is one of the most powerful and subtle messages of white superiority.

That I could go from cradle to grave, that I could live, love, work, play, create in racial segregation, with no sense whatsoever that anything of value has been lost, any perspective has been lost. And to be really direct Joyce, as a Black woman, I was not raised to know you or love you or care about you, that would be an exception to my life. I was never given the message that it mattered, that there was any effort I needed or should put into challenging that segregation. That's very deep. That's the level at which we have to start to examine the internalized superiority and get mighty uncomfortable, stop describing white neighborhoods as ideal and good when they're segregated. 

Taylor: So then it begs the question, if you are living in a segregated community, and you have all of your life, you have no friends of color outside of that circle. So you don't care about necessarily people of color because you don't know them, then how can we expect you to care about our children or the lives we're living or the issues that we're facing?

DiAngelo: The outcome of that is well documented empirical evidence here in Seattle, Washington. Seattle Public Schools have been under federal investigation for children being disciplined, children of color being disciplined four times more harshly for the same infraction. You know, by every measure, you're going to see that that inequality, that disparity, those messages, conscious or not or intentional or not, do come through, and I hope you in this series have talked about implicit bias. That that is a critical piece of it. And while all people have implicit bias, you know, socially learned prejudices, white people's racial biases are transformed, because they are backed with legal authority and institutional control. And that is what turns that into a system of racism rather than just individual bias.

Taylor: My final question on this topic would be if you could offer parents, white parents in particular, a toolkit of how to approach this topic with their young children. What would you say?

DiAngelo: I would say it's a little bit like saying, I'd like to be in shape and my children be in shape on Monday, and then I would say to you, you will not be in shape on Monday, neither will they. So you can get started on Monday, and it will be a multi part process. You'll have to look at diet, exercise, sleep, stress reduction, right? And then you're never gonna arrive at in shape and stay in shape. It's a process. It has multi layers and pieces to it. 

So maybe the first thing that they can do is to simply take out a piece of paper and start to make a list on why they don't know what to do...Why they don't know how to raise their kids in an anti-racist way, and there will be their map right there. And nothing on that list is going to be easy. But every thing on that can be done. And there are so many good resources today. 

Resources recommended by DiAngelo

This story was produced as part of “Facing Race,” a KING 5 series that examines racism, social justice and racial inequality in the Pacific Northwest. Tune in to KING 5 on Sundays at 9:30 p.m. to watch live and catch up on our coverage here.